The Sea is the Limit at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar
Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar
Images of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in unsafe overcrowded vessels have been dominating the media since 2015 and have become powerful symbols of the ‘migrant crisis’. The term ‘migrant crisis’ however can be contested, as the meaning of the word ‘crisis’ implies a situation that is temporary and therefore requires temporary measures and solutions. The reality is different. Migration to Europe is expected not only to continue, but to increase, creating what we can describe as ‘migrant condition’. The ongoing position of migrants who managed to survive the arduous journeys across the seas is often that of precarity, danger and uncertainty. Refugees and migrants stand at the limits of societal acceptance and become stateless non-residents of the world. The sea can be interpreted as a metaphor for the societal attitude towards migrants which, on one hand, keeps them afloat without offering safety or refuge, and, on the other hand, engenders the persistence of the sense of temporality of the ‘migrant condition’. Hostility turns into indifference, the last frontier where human life and its value is challenged and undermined.
Referring to the sharp clash between expectation and reality experienced by migrants crossing the seas in search of safety and better life, the artists in The Sea is the Limit exhibition address the fragility of human life when exposed to the elements. The sea serves as a metaphorical symbol of all migratory and diasporic experiences, where physically perilous journeys across the continents and the seas also represent continuous journeys of the emotional kind, the uprooting and the disconnection. Dispossession, alienation and trauma do not always manifest themselves in direct physical experiences but are too familiar to many a migrant as an emotional backdrop to the physical upheaval of forced transition.
The Sea is the Limit features artists who have been working on the topic of migration, borders and diaspora for many years, in some cases even for decades, and many of the participating artists are migrants themselves. Using the language of painting, drawing, sculpture, video, installation and virtual reality the artists explore the complex experiences and multi-layered emotions associated with borders and migration, statelessness and belonging. The artists do not aim to offer us solutions but instead bring our attention to these challenges in a meaningful way. This personal positioning of the artists sets the premise of the exhibition aside from the sensationalist interpretations of the ‘migrant crisis’ that makes the distinction between ‘us and them’, alienating those who move from those who remain, and instead brings empathy to the fore. In that sense, the sea no longer is the limit, the ultimate frontier, but instead could be interpreted as a new beginning, a limitless sea of humanity.
Halil Altindere’s work Journey to Mars (Space Refugee project) “addresses the flow of refugees, a truly global issue, in an extensive project composed of several ensembles of works. Framing an ironic response to the pervasive negative attitudes and resist stereotypes with which large parts of European population view the refugees from areas ravaged by war and terror and victims of political, religious, and ethnic persecution from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan, Space Refugee proposes a sanctuary for refugees in outer space.” (1)
In her Sail Away installation, a flotilla of small boats made from old paper currency, stamps, tickets and maps, Susan Stockwell explores the mythological aspect associated with boats as symbols of transition from material into spiritual world, and as carriers of our dreams, as well as vessels for adventures, escapes and journeys. The delicate and playful nature of paper boats is subverted by the duality of their meaning, commenting on the historic and contemporary imperial trades pursued by the world superpowers, hungry for economic expansion.
The intensity of memory ripples through Mohammed Sami’s charged palette and the tightly devised compositions of Beautiful Exile and Notes From Underground, and are indicative of narratives that are both personal and ambiguous. The language of Sami’s paintings has almost cinematic qualities, where colours, shapes and shadows of seemingly ordinary objects are intensified to an almost unbearable pitch, enhanced by the sense of unearthed memories and complex emotions that charge them. Entering those painted worlds that Sami creates is like going through an out-of-body experience with him, with the artist’s gaze hovering on the edge of consciousness and subconscious, dream and nightmare, life and death.
The themes of disappearance, invisibility and the sea are explored in Taus Makhacheva’s Baida. The work combines two different narratives, one is a conversation between the art world protagonists travelling on a boat in Venice lagoon, to view a performance piece at sea. The journey is full of ambiguous uncertainty, and the conversation is both vague and anxious. The parallel story has evolved from conversations between Makhacheva and the fishermen in the village of Stary Terek in the artist’s native Dagestan. Setting off on their perilous journeys at sea, the fishermen never know if they will come back alive. This fear of disappearance, of being invisible is what connects the two narratives in Baida.
Nidal Chamekh’s delicate and detailed drawings portray the lives of those who have succeeded in crossing the sea and have arrived at supposed safety on land, yet their lives remain precarious. Etude d’un Habitat Fortune and icare belong to a series Chamekh made from images in the refugee camp in Calais, and focus on the ideas of confinement and escape. The works comment on the state of refugees who are forced to settle within a societal boundary, yet remain unaccepted and treated as a threat. In Studying Circles there is an overall sense that the men pictured here are waiting for time to pass, their fragmented bodies appear fractured, with features obliterated, their stories digitised, their lives processed and their bodies tagged.
Varvara Shavrova’s Blankets Project is an ongoing series of wearable objects containing personal memories that the visitors are encouraged to hold and wear. Featuring images from Shavrova’s family albums, the blankets represent the desire to reconnect with something warm, familiar and personal when one experiences disconnection, loneliness and rootlessness as a migrant. By inviting visitors to wear her blankets, Shavrova hopes the feelings of loss of identity and desire for basic comfort that are experienced by millions of migrants and refugees from all over the world, can be shared through the process of direct physical encounter with the artworks.
(1) Kathrin Becker, in: Halil Altındere, edited by Marius Babias and Kathrin Becker, Exh. cat. Neuer Berliner Kunstverein; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2018, p. 16